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“me For Ma—and I Ain’t Got A Dern Thing Againts Pa”
Alabama’s Lurleen Wallace is not the first wife to stand in for her husband on the political stage. “Farmer Jim” Ferguson ran his Miriam for governor of Texas five times, and twice the voters elected her
October 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 6
Miriam Ferguson was forty-nine years old when she entered into politics “to vindicate my husband’s good name.” Aside from her marriage to Jim, there was little in her background to prepare her for the brutal realities of Texas politics. Raised in a middle-class farm family, she was sent to Salado College and to Baylor College for Women, in Belton, to train for the role of a dignified social matron that her parents envisioned for her. Her nickname, which she privately despised, soon appeared on bumper stickers all over the state: “Me for Ma,” often with the tagline “And I Ain’t Got a Bern Thing Against Pa.”
Vindication was the purpose of the Fergusons’ 1924 campaign, but their main issue was the Ku Klux Klan, then riding high and hard in Texas and in much of the rest of the nation, North and South. But the “invisible government” was also under increasing attack from many quarters after a series of newspaper exposés, started by the Baltimore Sun , involving murder, rape, and arson. Farmer Jim again correctly read the public mood. “Hate has been the slogan of the opposition,” Miriam charged. “Venom is its password and slander, falsehood and misrepresentation its platform.” The Klan retaliated by describing Ma as a kitchen “drudge” more qualified for feeding her chickens than for administering the largest state in the union. The intensity of the Klan’s attack reached the point where the New York Times felt obliged to remind its readers that Mrs. Ferguson was, in fact, a cultured, intelligent woman, who quietly but efficiently managed a household full of servants; even her furniture, that august journal remarked, was “tasteful.” But Ma was after the governorship, not a D.A.R. invitation; she preferred to campaign in a sunbonnet, and invited the press in to watch her can peach preserves.
Like Lurleen Wallace, Miriam kept her speeches mercifully short; she would mention the persecution of her husband by a vindictive state senate, in much the same way that the Wallaces complain about the Alabama senate clique that wouldn’t change the oneterm provision for the governor in the state constitution; and Ma usually ended with, “A vote for me is a vote of confidence for my husband.” Like George Wallace, Jim was the featured speaker, and the years of defeat had taken none of the force from his delivery nor dulled the shrewdness of his homespun repartee. To persistent accusations that his wife would be governor in name only, he would retort: “I ask you, if your wife was governor, would you get mad and leave home or would you stick around and help her?”
Not that Miriam did not supply some unique contributions to the campaign. A solid five feet five, with graytinged dark brown hair and brown eyes, she moved confidently through the crowds and shook so many hands that her right arm swelled to twice its size. The handshaking paid off: Mrs. Ferguson ran a strong second in the July primary. A month later, in the mandatory run-off election, she buried the Klan-supported candidate by almost 98,000 votes. There followed an eleventh-hour court suit to have her candidacy disallowed because of the so-called common-law disability against women in office. The fact that her husband was legally entitled to her salary was no obstacle, the district court ruled. Nor could she be prevented from running simply because her husband had written in the Forum that, if she were elected, he intended to run the state; if everyone were held responsible for his campaign statements, the judge sensibly pointed out, then nobody could be elected to any post. The state supreme court affirmed the decision, and on November 4, 1924, Mrs. Ferguson, after beating back the strongest Republican opposition since Reconstruction, accepted her victory “as a daughter of Texas to the manner born.” The Lone Star state, over which six flags had flown, was now dominated by a petticoat.∗
∗ Mrs. Ferguson was the first woman elected to a full term as governor, but she was not the nation’s first woman governor. Two weeks before she was sworn in, Wyoming, the first state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, inaugurated Mrs. Nellie Tayloe Ross to fill out the unexpired term of her late husband.
The immediate mood was auspicious. Thousands crowded into Austin to hear her take the oath of office, the band that had campaigned with her played “The Eyes of Texas,” and the outgoing governor told Mrs. Ferguson that he had left her “a single white rose, an open Bible, and a picture of Woodrow Wilson.” The legislature responded by quickly passing an antimask bill that further crippled the KKK.
But it wasn’t long, as her daughter, Mrs. Ouida F. Nalle, later wrote in The Fergusons of Texas , before “the lies began to fly.” The most sensational charges concerned the awarding of enormously profitable highway construction contracts, without competitive bidding, to contractors who happened to be substantial advertisers in The Ferguson Forum . No one was ever indicted, but a number of the contracts were eventually rescinded.